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An Israeli soldier gave me a gift of love and freedom

I'm not sure what I expected to discover in Israel. I didn't expect to find answers to my quandaries about religion, politics or human rights. Nope, I mostly hoped to find a beach.

So you can imagine my delight when I found myself rolling around on a ratty mattress in a sandy Bedouin tent in the middle of the Negev desert with a fantastically handsome 6-foot-2, 21-year-old Israeli army commander.

There was only one problem. As he drew me close and pulled at my shirt, the commander unintentionally exposed a pair of wounds about 8 inches above my hips. And in doing so, he uncovered the physical manifestation of why I so desperately needed a vacation.

Matan, my dark and quiet warrior, was the first man to reveal the pink, tender scars hidden under my shirt. To him, it probably appeared as if someone had taken an extremely sharp knife and sliced into my 22-year-old chest.

And someone had.

A pre-emptive war against cancer

In April last year – eight months after the doctor who had diligently treated my mother's breast cancer for 12 years told her, “I'm sorry, Mrs. Ritchie, but I just don't have any more ideas,” and 11 months after I graduated from college – surgeons made two incisions under my breasts. They excavated my chest and reconstructed my cleavage with silicone implants and human tissue, to remove potentially precancerous tissue.

Both of my mother's sisters and my grandmother had died of breast cancer.

And although no doctor has been able to detect a genetic mutation in our DNA, the disease clearly runs in my family like the curls in our hair.

So as my mother fought the most challenging battle of her life, I, too, engaged in combat: a pre-emptive war.

I had always known that the operation, a prophylactic double mastectomy, was inevitable, but it hadn't occurred to me that I would be on the operating table before meeting my husband and raising children.

When my mother's illness took a turn for the worse, I believed I had to act. As difficult as it was to imagine undergoing it at such a young age, it was impossible to imagine undergoing it without her. So I left Teach for America, moved home to be with my mother and prepare for my surgery.

When I wasn't buying organic root vegetables to supplement my mother's new cancer-fighting diet, I was explaining my decision to family and friends.

I sat with people for hours, waiting for them to get over the shock. One cousin thought I was making a mistake and begged me to wait. A handful of people stopped returning my calls; one admitted later that she “just couldn't handle it.”

But I had plans. Not long after my operation, I would be off to the Middle East and a country involved in an entirely different kind of war.

Exactly three months after I left the hospital, an active-duty soldier introduced himself to our tour group on a street in Jerusalem. He would be accompanying us for several days.

“I'm Matan,” he said, his hand outstretched. “My name means gift.”

That day he detailed his experience in the second Lebanon war to a group of falafel-eating American tourists at a cafe in the Old City. He told us about a botched mission during the summer of 2006. “My soldier, he died in the helicopter ride home,” he said.

Over the next four days I came to know an intensely anti-war commander who cared deeply about the safety of his soldiers and his country's future.

He struck me as a hopeless romantic. He showed me pictures of his mother. He held my hand as we hiked through parks, and he sang to me as we lay gazing at the stars.

“My mother is sick,” I whispered that night in the tent when he saw my scars. “All of the women in my family have been sick.”

“Sometimes we have to fight battles even when we don't want to,” he said.

With that statement I knew he recognized, as I did, that we shared something deep that drove us both to take up weapons when we could have walked away and hoped for the best.

Before Matan, I had spent a year removing people from my life before removing things from my body. Women my age are supposed to feel young and beautiful, but I felt old and monstrous. That night Matan began to kiss away a year of fear, pain and loneliness.

Remaining strong and fearless

In the Bedouin tent, my insecurity fell away in the arms of a man who understood what it felt like to fight a seemingly endless war for survival. He, too, carried the burden of remaining strong and fearless in an environment where fear was the dominant emotion.

Before Matan left to resume his army duties, he asked me to return to Israel in December. We would live together on a kibbutz, he said, growing organic root vegetables and dancing until dawn.

Tired of worrying about the future, I accepted his offer with no hesitation.

Back in New York, I tried to reach him by e-mail, sending message after message. When I didn't hear from him, I convinced myself he was busy. His army schedule was taxing. I gave him time: days, weeks, then months.

Sometime in late fall, it occurred to me that Matan was still in real danger. I scoured the newspapers for his name. I searched for details about bombings. One night after work, in a last-ditch attempt, I dialed the number he had scribbled in my travel journal.

“Allo?” he said in his soft, melodious voice. It was a Sunday morning in Israel, and there were sounds of a busy cafe in the background.

“Matan? Is that you?” I burst out. “Hello? Matan? Can you hear me? It's … Glyn.”

I waited for him to tell me that he had lost my number, his computer had malfunctioned or he had been fighting on the front lines. When I decided that he couldn't hear me, I waited for him to ask, “Is anybody there?”

I sat on the edge of my bed, held my breath and waited. Until, almost on cue, he quietly ended the call.

Matan was not the first man who opened up my chest, scooped out the contents and tossed them into the trash. He will be the last, I hope.

In February, I put on the T-shirt Matan gave me on one of our last nights together. For months it had held his scent, instantly transporting me to that tent in the desert. I knew that in putting on the shirt and eventually washing it, I would be accepting the loss of him.

I may have been naive to feel such an intense connection to someone I knew only a few days, no matter how powerful I believed our connection to be.

But while Matan may remain trapped in his own battle, he freed me from mine. For 22 years, I had pushed myself into adulthood, anxious about finding the right person, starting a family, establishing my career – always trying to beat the clock.

The surgery only compounded my sense of urgency, culminating in my overblown expectations of Matan, who, after all, was only 21. He was just a kid. And so was I.

I realize now that I heard exactly what I needed to hear when he cut off the phone call. In his silence I found the freedom to relax into the natural pace of my life. For the first time, I did not have to rush to Israel, to graduate school, down the aisle or into the maternity ward. I could just be 23.

It was a matan, a gift I needed.

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